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J.D. Salinger fascination drives two new books

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New works on J.D. Salinger make @TobarWriter wish the novelist weren't such a closed book
Thomas Beller's informal approach in 'J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist'
Joanna Rakoff's 'My Salinger Year' an inside look at old-fashioned literary NY

The famously reclusive J.D. Salinger wouldn't allow himself to be known. And yet assorted authors continue to probe his life. Inevitably, they are forced to reiterate the same few scattered facts other scribes have pored over before. That's the fate Thomas Beller tries to avoid, with mixed success, in his biography-cum-travelogue "J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist."

Read more, and you may get an actual, fleeting look at the man as he stood in life — something Joanna Rakoff delivers in her often intriguing and lyrical but uneven new memoir, "My Salinger Year."

After reading the new Salinger books by Beller and Rakoff (both respected novelists), I couldn't help but wish that "Jerry" — as the author of "The Catcher in the Rye" was known to his friends — had sat down for at least one definitive, revealing interview before he died in 2010. If he'd done so, we probably would have been spared much of the strange, sad spectacle of the Salinger cult.

Salinger obsessions drive "My Salinger Year," which recounts Rakoff's time working as a lowly assistant at the New York literary agency that represented Salinger.

"People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number," Salinger's agent tells Rakoff. "They're going to ask you to put them in touch with him.... They'll say they want to interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what." With narrowed eyes, "like a caricature of a gangster," the agent warns Rakoff, "Don't tell them anything."

Salinger became one of the most famous writers in the United States with the 1951 publication of "The Catcher in the Rye." An instant bestseller, it eventually became required reading for alienated Americans of all ages and the first "serious" literary novel assigned to several generations of American middle- and high-school students.

Not long after "The Catcher in the Rye" appeared, Salinger moved to Cornish, N.H. His media silence and invisibility only increased his hold on the American imagination.

Salinger was already four decades into his New Hampshire exile when Rakoff came to work at Harold Ober Associates. (The agency isn't named in Rakoff's book, though it was in her 2010 piece for Slate, as is Phyllis Westberg, the agent who appears in the book only as "my boss.")

Rakoff's memoir works best as a profile of what was, even then, a dying institution — the old-fashioned New York literary agency. There is much smoking of cigarettes. Book deals are closed over lunch and a handshake.

The "Agency way" of getting authors book deals involves "no auctions, with publishers bidding against each other. It's uncouth," one agent tells Rakoff. "We match writers with editors. We have morals."

To enter the agency's offices is to enter a kind of time warp. It's 1996 (long after Al Gore "invented" the Internet), but the agency has neither an Internet connection nor a single computer. Rakoff's job is to type up correspondence — with an old IBM Selectric. She soon suspects that the agency eschews computers because Salinger hates them.

Unfortunately, the frame holding up this fascinating and emotive portrait of old-fashioned literary New York is Rakoff's own, not-especially remarkable life as a recently minted, earnest college graduate with her own artistic aspirations.

Rakoff's coming-of-age story is a bit of a slog. Among other things, it includes a discussion with her father over her credit card bills and getting miffed when her boyfriend stares at another woman at a cafe. Each reentry of Salinger into the narrative is a welcomed relief. (He first appears as a voice yelling on the phone — he's hard of hearing.) And when Rakoff finally meets Salinger inside the agency's office, "his silver hair parted deeply on one side, combed and Brylcreemed in the style of the 1950s and 1960s," and greets his agent, it's a genuinely moving moment.

In "The Escape Artist," Beller's relationship with Salinger is more voyeuristic. Beller, a veteran fiction and magazine writer, co-founded the literary journal Open City. He never met Salinger. His mission in "The Escape Artist" is to craft an intimate and highly personal account of Salinger's life.

The result is an episodic quilting of incidents and interviews (not recounted in chronological order), many of which have appeared in other books, together with accounts of Beller's own journeys to assorted landmarks of Salinger's life, including the Manhattan apartment where Salinger lived with his family.

Entering the apartment, Beller walks down a hallway and sees "the open door of a bathroom and the gleaming white bathtub in which Zooey Glass," one of Salinger's characters, "had sat with letter in hand, cigarette smoldering."

Although Beller writes with intelligence and insight — especially about Salinger's Jewish heritage — his informal approach makes this book feel unfocused. The principal contribution of "The Escape Artist" to Salingerism may be its appreciation of the role of the New Yorker editors Gustave Lobrano and William Shawn on Salinger's work.

Still, you don't have to be a completely devoted Salinger fan to appreciate the basic story Beller has to share in "The Escape Artist." It's the tale of a sensitive, ambitious, self-confident, manipulative and slightly odd man with unspoken traumas, who loved language and crafted a masterpiece. He was a man whose desire to be left alone may forever frustrate our efforts to know who he truly was.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

J.D. Salinger
The Escape Artist

Thomas Beller
New Harvest: 192 pp., $20

My Salinger Year

Joanna Rakoff
Alfred A. Knopf: 272 pp., $25.95

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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